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The Growing Trend of Microcredentials

Microcredentials present a viable solution for both higher education institutions and employers looking to survive and thrive in a difficult economy. However, successful implementation of microcredentials requires clearly defining them and communicating their value to employers.

While the microcredential could present an attractive business solution for the post-secondary sector, is it at risk of over-promising and under-delivering?

According to education market observers and sector investors, in 2019 the micro- and alternative credential spend by learners, governments and industry totaled around 10 billion USD globally, and this education investment is anticipated to double in the next three to five years. What’s driving the interest and investment in microcredentials? Learner demographics and needs are changing as our population ages in North America, our world of work is shifting with the emergence of new industries and ways of working, and education technology is accelerating.  

Over the past decade, we’ve observed industry developing and implementing professional certification (e.g., Microsoft, Google and Apple educator certification) as part of their consumer engagement and B2B sales strategies. And we’ve seen the proliferation of fully online degrees and a rise in the open university model. While formal degrees and the on-campus modality continue to be the prime education offerings for a post-secondary learning experience, the market enthusiasm for microcredentials is surging.  

Microcredentials are today’s career-future-proofing tool. The hypothesis is that they will allow more employees (adult learners) to upgrade their employment-related skills quickly and efficiently and in doing so, remain competitive in the workforce, while navigating work and family demands. Some have gone so far as to intimate that microcredentials are the greatest education innovation since the MOOC promise of 2012–microcredentials can upskill and cross-skill learners as well as improve learner access to education pathways. 

Whether microcredentials can future-proof a career or not may be inconsequential to post-secondary institutions required to consider alternate business-operating and revenue-generating models. Post-secondary administrators have been experiencing decreases in government funding enrollment (a demographic reality) and further challenges with international student recruitment efforts to meet domestic enrollment shortfalls. Our sector pressures are further stressed by increasingly expensive teaching and research talent (hence the rise of the sessional lecturer and precarious work) and whose skill sets require greater administrative support infrastructure (technological infrastructure) to achieve the institution’s teaching and research objectives.  

With evidence that microcredentials are a fast-accelerating 10B USD market opportunity, this education solution presents a compelling business model that could reverse the post-secondary sector’s fortunes. Otherwise, according to Clayton Christensen, 50% of the 4,000 colleges and universities across the United States will be at risk of bankruptcy in the next decade. And Canada, the UK and Australia are not immune to the insolvency either; in Ontario, we’ve been shaken by the news of Laurentian University–a publicly funded institution–declaring insolvency in 2020, resulting in the termination of 100 faculty members and the closure of 69 programs. No wonder post-secondary institutions are enthusiastic; microcredentials present opportunities to government funding, renewed industry partnerships if adopted and a broader and growing adult learner demographic.

In Ontario, Canada’s largest province, the government has pledged over $60 million over the next three years to support the development of microcredentials.  Furthermore, this province has also expanded the Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP) to include 600 microcredential programs and is also investing in a virtual skills passport to more easily share learners’ skills with employers. While governments are investing in microcredentials, it seems that employers have yet to adopt and adapt to what is touted as education’s latest innovation. In May 2021, the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (HEQO) published survey results from over 201 Canadian employers revealing that 59% of the employers surveyed are unfamiliar with the term and have no understanding of what a microcredential is. HR executives from across different industries weighed in that until employers are familiar with what a microcredential is and have confidence in the quality of this learning award, they will have little impact on a candidate’s employment opportunities. 

Our employers’ lack of familiarity might be explained by our sector’s continuing lack of clarity as to what constitutes a microcredential. Some institutions will define microcredentials as a learning award for completing a short-duration program focused on a specific skill.  Microcredentials can be offered online, but they can also be offered as hybrid and on-campus courses; they can be awarded for learning that requires about 30 hours of class time, but they can also be awarded for fewer or more hours; they can be pathways and related to another credential, but they can also be standalone.  So long as the definition continues to be debated, presenting microcredentials to employers as a viable credential will continue to be problematic, which is ultimately a disservice to learners.

As post-secondary education leaders continue to determine what a microcredential is, we also need to consider all that we understand about teaching, learning, career and human development when determining our learning design approach for microcredentials. The in-demand skills that employers are seeking are time and again identified as the global competencies or 6Cs (communication, collaboration, critical thinking, curiosity, character and citizenship). According to LinkedIn job postings, global competencies are frequently listed above technical skills as an employment priority and include: creativity, persuasion, collaboration, adaptability, emotional intelligence and analytical reasoning.  Top technical skills include: blockchain, cloud computing, AI, UX design, business analysis, sales and video production. Global North employers are looking for talent with international and intercultural experience.

As educators, we know the in-demand global competencies that employers declare they are seeking and value cannot be developed in a single, short-duration program. Global competencies are multidimensional and require sustainable lifelong learning. Post-secondary education institutions play a crucial role in enabling learner development in global competencies. Historically, our learners and employers value the critical thinking honed throughout an individual’s post-secondary learning experience. And we don’t simply stop developing these competencies upon graduating from a formal learning program–we need workplace learning conditions that provide the environment and context to apply and continue to develop them over our lifetime.  

With market enthusiasm toward investing in education, coupled with government funding support, microcredentials present a very attractive path forward for a sector working to identify alternative funding solutions. My concern is that our sector pressures may be blurring our educational senses. Are we well-informed by our education research, and balancing our knowledge and experience of human development with the needs of learners, government and employers? Are we leading in our education field, or are we being led? Currently, the microcredential solution is not clearly defined, its portability is unknown and prospective employers are unaware of what it is. Higher education professionals and education systems leaders need to consider our sector’s education agenda for microcredentials and reflect on how this education solution is, first and foremost, serving the needs of learners, communities and employers.

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